Local experts say Bellingham is rife with networking possibilities — here are some tips to make the most of them
The art of schmoozing in the business world is easy to learn, but difficult to master — and it’s an important tactic to keep opportunities open. To start, all you need is a social situation, a dose of confidence, and some conversational kindling. The hardest part always seems to be opening your mouth — but once the conversation is sparked, dialogue naturally builds and networking can begin.
Although the opportunity for a quick schmooze can happen many times a day, maintaining a network of people takes more work than a conversation in passing at the deli. Bellingham has many organized networking opportunities. The only remaining questions are where and when, and what schmoozing style you prefer.
“There are a lot of people who are so busy working in their business, they don’t have time to work on their business,” said Pat Rowe, development director at the Bellingham/ Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry. No matter what niche a business is in, it can benefit from networking, he said.
If you are usually bashful in social situations — start rummaging for a shot of confidence. Many people are shy or unsure of themselves around others, said Rowe.
“A lot of people are waiting for someone else to make the first move,” he said. Rowe suggests being proactive and initiating conversation, or joining a group conversation to get the ball rolling.
There are many times during the business day (and on the weekends for the truly motivated) when opportunities arise for a business schmooze, he said. Unfortunately, according to Rowe, many people don’t know how to fit their business into conversation.
Crafting a spiel
To initiate a meaningful business conversation, discard the rambling chit-chat and decide what you want to say. Rowe suggests creating and practicing what he calls an “elevator speech.” The idea is to decide what you would tell someone about you and your business during a short elevator ride. According to Rowe, the speech should be less than one minute long and contain essential information. An “elevator speech” not only starts a conversation, but introduces information that raises more questions, keeping dialogue moving.
Don’t be too aggressive
Networking is not about cornering someone and force-feeding them your infomercial. There is a difference between networking and being pushy, said Rowe.
“Good networking is having a conversation with someone and talking about your business, which sells your business to them without their knowing it,” he said. “Being direct, having good eye contact, and presenting yourself with integrity are all important to remember.”
Although your message is important, a successful schmooze shouldn’t be all talk, said Rowe. After initiating a conversation, switch over and be a listener, he said. Networking is not solely about selling your business, it’s also about learning about the community and what others have to offer, he said.
Where to network
Whether you enjoy the structure of a suit-and-tie business breakfast or prefer a casual business chat with an occasional fishing story over pizza, Bellingham has a networking opportunity to fit your style.
Networking clubs and tips or leads clubs come in many forms. Some are focused on generating business leads or tips, while others are more interested in creating a social network. Policies regarding attendance, generating business leads and the number of members per industry are quite strict in some clubs and nonexistent in others.
Deana Reynolds, general manager at Bergen & Company, an embroidery and promotional products company, has been a member of The Referral Network for about two years. She joined the club, after being introduced by a longtime customer, because the collection of personalities in the group was attractive.
The club, which meets at 7 a.m. once a week and shares leads and business news over breakfast, has around 20 members.
At each meeting, Reynolds, said the club passes around a bucket with tips. If a member doesn’t bring a tip, she said they must surrender one dollar, known within the club as “green guilt.” At every meeting, the club also has a speaker, usually someone from the group, who talks about their business or recent news. She said people often bring in products, promotional items or flyers if their business is having an event or sale.
Reynolds said the club has a limit to the amount of absences, and allows only one person per industry, a common practice to avoid having members compete over leads.
According to Reynolds, almost every business will need the services of her business at some point, and the club puts her in contact with a range of people, creating a larger potential customer base.
At Connections, a longtime Bellingham business club, the atmosphere is a bit different. Ken Hamilton, who recently finished a term as club president, said the club is not really focused on business leads, but instead on spurring professional and business development.
Hamilton, regional manager of Nexxpost LLC, a mailing and shipping consulting company, said the club has each member talk briefly at every meeting, and has two speakers. Also, every month members participate in a program called “Lunch Bunch,” where two members schedule time to have lunch together. Hamilton said this allows members to get to know each other on a more personal level.
According to Hamilton, who has been a club member for about two years, the club is the oldest of its kind in Whatcom County, and some people have been members for more than 15 years.
He said the reputation and solid relationships in the club, which has around 30 members, has created an atmosphere where maintaining trust and credibility is very important. Fly-by-night business people looking for quick sales information have joined the club and been quickly eliminated, because they don’t fit in, he said.
The Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry also provides networking opportunities for its members and invited guests, offering a monthly networking breakfast and the Business After Business event.
Rowe said the networking breakfast is a great way to meet a lot of people in a single morning. At the breakfast, people are seated at a table of eight and have one minute to tell the table about their business. The tables are then shuffled twice, giving an individual an opportunity to meet seven new people each time. Rowe said about 130 to 160 people usually attend, and there is always an opportunity to meet new people.
The Business After Business event gives chamber members a little more time to network and also give them some insight into how another business works, said Rowe. Each month a business hosts members at their business, giving them a tour and talking about how the business operates.
Not to be forgotten are the schmoozing opportunities at social and service clubs. Bill Unrein, president of the Bellingham Bay Rotary Club, said that the organization’s foremost purpose is a civic organization, and directly soliciting business from another member is frowned upon. He said, however, over time friends will gravitate toward each other in the business world, whether they meet at Rotary Club or another social setting.
Using the “remember me, we met three months ago” bit with a business acquaintance following a one-time introduction doesn’t always work. Rowe said networking can get you started at making new contacts, but you have to regularly maintain those contacts, and build upon them. He also added that people may not always remember you or your business, and repetition is usually necessary.
To really stay fresh in networking, it is probably a good idea to switch periodically to a new networking opportunity, so you can meet a group of new people, said Reynolds.
You don’t have to become a fast-talking New York lawyer or a suave Hollywood socialite to be effective at networking. It might take a little practice to get going, along with some effort to keep your momentum, but after that it should become second nature. In all schmoozing situations, remember to present yourself with confidence — without a shot of liquid courage — and always have a business card handy.